In part one of his Real Southern Men Adventure at the Richard Petty Driving Experience, RSM Kris Wheeler squeezed himself into some ill-fitting fireproof jammies and steeled his nerve for a 180 m.p.h. spin around the Atlanta Motor Speedway. If you haven’t read part one, you might want to catch up now. If you have, start your engines!
“… don’t blow the damn thing up!”
The classroom session is brief — a short video and lecture about the do’s and don’t's before being divided into teams of five. Our “Wheeler” last name lands my brother and I on the same team. Next, we’re hurried out the door and into waiting passenger vans on pit road. Our group instructor, Corey North, chauffeurs our team around the track at high speeds, pointing out the safest driving lines. Orange road cones mark the entrance and exits to each turn.
North looks like a racecar driver. He’s tan, lanky and hansom. He appears young — maybe in his late 20s — a little too young, I think, to be my instructor.
“The cones tell you when to “git off the gas and git on the gas,” he explains. “Just remember, gas off, gas on … gas on, gas off. Git it?”
Sounds simple enough.
“And whatever you do, don’t blow the damn thing up!” he warns, reminding us to shift into fourth gear. “You’d be surprised how many people run around here in third … ‘course they blow pretty soon.”
Back on pit road, we have our pictures taken standing next to the official Richard Petty car. Our commemorative plaques, we’re told, will be available at the souvenir shop shortly after “closing ceremonies.” Rance sees a group of men gathered by the Petty car waiting to be photographed. He mistakes them for his “team.” Thinking he’s supposed to be in the shot, he slides in front and center; puts his arms around his teammates’ shoulders and smiles a big, toothy grin for the camera. Turns out the men are on a corporate outing.
This is not his team. Apparently, no one notices.
Moments later, Janet (my sister-in-law) informs Rance he’s just crashed an employee group photo. He pauses, grins: “Well, if anyone asks who I am I’ll just say, ‘“I’m Bob from accounting.”’
By now it’s after 9 a.m. Race time.
Here’s how the Driving Experience works: Each driver gets eight laps behind the wheel without an instructor along for the ride. You’re not racing against other drivers and no more than four cars (two rookies, two instructors) are on the track at any given time. You compete based on individual lap times. The goal is to stay close and in the tracks of the (instructor) car in front of you.
“Whatcha wanna do is git tucked in right behind your instructor,” North explained. “I mean stay on me like a tick … I’ll wave you off if you git too close.”
Just prior to getting in the cars, we’re issued helmets and these little helmet liners that bear a striking resemblance to white cotton yarmulkes. It’s like a scene in a bad dream. We look like excited children wearing novelty pajamas at a bar mitzvah celebration.
But in a way, the driving experience is a coming of age party — the manifestation of a midlife tune-up, you could say.
The driving order is announced. Between the three of us, Kurt drives first, then Rance. I bring up the rear.
I watch with childlike enthusiasm as each takes his turn around the legendary super-speedway. And though they’re on the track at separate times, their performances are nearly identical.
I marvel over the ease at which they negotiate the 24-degree banking in the track’s four symmetrical turns. It’s clear they’ve got toe to medal as they charge down the 1,800-foot backstretch. Streaking into the track’s signature 2,332-foot front straightaway, the instructor’s rear bumper is in their crosshairs. A tap of his breaks and they’ll swap paint.
Kurt and Rance each clock top speeds just a fraction off the 140 mph mark – impressive and among the fastest times of the day.
Just getting into the car is no easy task. The cars are much smaller than they appear on TV. For those who don’t know, there are no doors. You climb in through the driver-side window. At the risk of emasculating consequences, I straddle the window seal; hands on roof, right leg up and over, left leg follows, head duck, I’m in.
It’s sweltering inside, like an oven. There’s a great line from the movie “Wild At Heart” about being “… hotter’n Georgia asphalt.” I am just that, but not for the same reasons “Lula” is in the movie.
My crew chief secures the window’s safety net into place. The net is designed to prevent me from becoming a one-arm publisher should I lose control and the car tumbles end over end down the track, with my left arm flailing out the window like some bronc-bustin’ rodeo cowboy.
He reaches in, flips the ignition and the 600-horsepower monster thunders to life. My seat vibrates. The car idles on pit road as he offers a few last-second instructions before pointing to the fire extinguisher. “You won’t need that, but in case you do, there it is.”
The instructor positions his car in front of mine. And with that, the crew chief shoots me a thumps up, steps back and shouts, “Go!” His arms point toward the exit of pit road.
Kurt is standing behind the pit wall, recording the entire “experience” on my video camera. For the next eight laps the action, his comments and those around him, are all documented for the viewing pleasure of generations to come.
“Here he goes, everybody! Here goes uncle Kris!” Kurt says loudly, apparently trying to get the attention of my nieces and nephews.
Now the one thing no one wants to do is drop the clutch and stall the car as he’s trying to pull away. No decent Real Southern Man raised on NASCAR would ever allow that to happen.
I should have eaten grits for breakfast.
I stall — in full view of family, God and everyone else.
“Damn it!” I imagine comments coming from the other drivers who are watching.
“Candy ass!” … “You’re a girl!”
I drive a stick every day. This can’t happen. My grandfather, “Papa” Tippens, taught me how to drive a manual transmission when I was 14. The memory is crystal clear: I’m driving his green pickup in the cattle pasture (a wise decision). Other than a close call with a prized heifer, I managed just fine.
Within seconds my pit man pokes his arm back into the car and flips the ignition switch. The engine refires. I narrowly escape a second stall as the car lunges forward, sputters and spits itself into gear.
Down pit road I rumble, my right hand resting atop the tall, metal gear shift. Into second gear now, exiting pit road. Gaining momentum, I cross the track apron and up onto Turn 2. Third gear.
Off Turn 2, orange cone: “gas on.” The backstretch opens up before me.
“Whatever you do, don’t blow the damn thing up!” I remember. Fourth gear and away we go. The sensation of speed is sudden. The engine rages violently. It’s exhilarating.
I’m flying, or at least that’s what I think.
The reality of my “experience” is being captured on camera each time I drive out of Turn 4, down the front straightaway and into Turns 1 and 2, at which point my car disappears from camera range.
The footage recorded that day doesn’t lie, and neither does Kurt’s commentary. It went like this:
• Lap 1: “Here he comes!” There’s excitement in his voice.
Exiting out of Turn 4, my car comes into view more clearly. There is no excitement the next time my brother’s voice is heard:
“Good God! He’s going 20 miles an hour!”
Technically, it was a warm-up lap, but already I’m way off the pace of the drivers who preceded me.
• Lap 2: “Put a toe in it brother!” he shouts (obvious frustration).
• Lap 3: “Come’on man!” This time it’s more like a moan, as if he’s pleading.
In the car, I struggle to get comfortable. There’s too much in my head.
“Orange cone … was that gas on, or gas off?”
• Lap 4: A spectator near the camera is overheard laughing at me, and then these words: “That’s the guy I get stuck behind driving to work in the mornings.”
Kurt fires back: “Hey! that’s my brother!”
The man could care less. “Yeah? … I said ‘that’s the guy I always stuck behind driving to work in the mornings.’”
Kurt: “That’s my brother?”
• Lap 5: A female voice is heard off camera: “Why’s he going so slow?”
Kurt is silent — and remains so over the next three laps, which go pretty much like first five. No more commentary is recorded, nor needed.
The experience is over far too soon. I finish with a top speed of 127 mph. Compared to the other drivers, watching my performance is like waiting for molasses to drip on a buttered biscuit. Mine is the slowest speed of the day.
Still, Kurt and Rance, being the good brothers they are, greet me with congratulatory handshakes and slaps on the back. “How was it bro?” … “Was that not incredible?”
Approaching the camera, my face is visibly red, flushed from the heat, excitement … and embarrassment. Looking into the lens, I reply: “Are you kidding me? Man, that was so awesome … amazing!”
And it was. I may have been the slowest guy on the track, but the 127-mph trip down memory lane had awakened a younger version of myself — and, frankly, I learned something important that day. The earlier model can teach me a few things about life that I seem to have forgotten over the years.
After all, underneath all the layers, we’re still just kids, right?
But I do want a rematch. Next time, the brothers are going down.